Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 19, 2017
Sascha T. Scott A Strange Mixture: The Art and Politics of Painting Pueblo Indians Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 280 pp.; 58 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780806144849)

During the heyday of the Taos/Santa Fe School, which lasted from about 1915 to the mid-1930s, support came from two different kinds of patrons: those intrigued by an exotic and remote Indian civilization in the far Southwest, which somehow doubled as an early America; and those who looked on the same group of Indians as descendants of the ancient Anasazi tribes, with cultural attributes that merited preservation. Distinguishing between the two groups has never been easy; some patrons frequently crossed the line. Thus, constructing a historiography of the school—that is, a rough outline of how these different kinds of paintings have been understood over the years—is also difficult and confusing.

To some extent, Sascha Scott has sidestepped the issue, reluctant to arbitrarily divide the works of painters who have usually been seen as belonging to one camp or another (or, in an alternate but related breakdown, to distinguish the camps according to their stylistic modes: academic or progressive). What Scott has undertaken instead is an intense scrutiny of individual works by artists from both sides of the aisle, although admittedly with the balance weighed toward progressives. However, she focuses not just on those artists with modernist tendencies, but more specifically on those whose political allegiance had come down firmly on the side of the Indians, whose homelands were already vanishing by the turn of the century, the date that also marks the beginning of the Taos art colony. During the next two decades, it became evident to these artists that more than Pueblo lands were in jeopardy. Most troubling was the attitude of officials at the Office of Indian Affairs in Washington, who had begun to cast a suspicious eye on certain “questionable” ceremonial rites practiced by Pueblo tribes.

When the Santa Fe Railroad crossed New Mexico in the early 1880s, and tourists began to flood the area, surveillance of these rites increased. But so did partisan support from Anglo painters, especially attracted to the region around Taos and Santa Fe because of its colorful Indian population and surrounding high-desert landscape. Indeed, it was not long before the area was described as a painter’s dream, consisting of subjects all but ready to set down on canvas. No wonder the artists counted on the region staying as it was, before tourists invaded and before government bureaucrats attempted to sanitize Pueblo life and ceremonial rites. To be sure, the artists themselves brought on some of these problems, depicting New Mexico as a southwestern Shangri-La. But once closer scrutiny from Washington followed, along with determined attempts to “Americanize” the Pueblos, the artists fought back with attacks against government assimilationist campaigns that more or less absolved them of self-interest.

How the artists fought back, with pamphlets and marches, during the intensely confrontational 1920s is only part of the story, however. What Scott argues in A Strange Mixture is that both Indians and artists resident in the two art colonies came up with artistic strategies that subtly privileged their Pueblo subjects, establishing them as equals and/or, to the extent possible, arbiters of their own fate. One might say they made of protest an inside job, an art that simultaneously revealed and concealed, and that bestowed sufficient agency on Pueblo subjects to outwit the increasingly harsh policies handed down by Washington officials. That said, how does one build such an argument? In short, by doing lots of homework—in New Mexico archives; among tribal elders in Pueblo communities; and in critical works by younger scholars, many intimately familiar with Indian/Anglo relations in New Mexico during the last century. Thus, A Strange Mixture is in many ways a new story out of an old story; one that begins in colonial and postcolonial New Mexico, with a presumably docile and submissive Pueblo population, and ends with a long-needed investigation of how certain artists fought such stereotypes with paintbrushes and covert rhetoric.

But this new story cannot finally succeed without subjecting key works to relentless visual analysis, and that is where A Strange Mixture truly excels. Selecting works from a range of carefully chosen artists—Ernest Blumenschein, Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, the Indian Awa Tsireh, and Georgia O’Keeffe—Scott’s arguments proceed not by an exhaustive account of their respective careers but by carefully dissecting a handful of works by each. That process, admittedly, puts things into some disarray. Blumenschein and Tsireh, an Anglo and a Pueblo artist whose individual works appear to have nothing in common, nevertheless introduced similar objections to assimilationist policies handed down from Washington. O’Keeffe, on the other hand, preferred to distance herself from most Pueblo politics of the period. All of which begs the question of how much A Strange Mixture can be considered a general text on the school, despite abundant background information and lavish production standards. The answer may be that Scott intended the book to be what the title says, “A Strange Mixture,” but the publisher saw a chance to sell it as a more definitive text. No harm in trying, as the saying goes. For too long the artists associated with the school have been assigned second-rate status, which in turn has led those outside the field to believe that the work produced in the Taos/Santa Fe colonies could not support the kind of interrogation Scott has undertaken.

Time and again, however, Scott succeeds in convincing the reader that there is a degree of ambiguity in the works she singles out. Hartley, for example, wrote passionately about “red Indians” in a “red land,” a lead Scott picks up, drawing connections between the pulse-like beat that drove Pueblo dances and the rhythmic structures that appear in Hartley’s New Mexico landscapes. Indeed, those landscapes do seem to surge and swell with an almost organic motion. In another essay, called “Tribal Esthetics,” Hartley is more clearly identified as anti-assimilationist, openly supporting native dance as a legitimate expression of Pueblo life and culture—of a tradition, in other words, as basic to their well-being as any religious ceremony practiced by white people.

Blumenschein took a less obvious but no less committed approach to the issues, Scott argues, when he painted a picture called The Gift, in which a Pueblo man (often mistaken for a woman) whose so-called gift, not specifically identified, initially subverts the common understanding of such a picture, which would seem to feature gorgeous Pueblo dress and accessories as singular complements to an aboriginal American past. But the cold eye with which the subject takes in the viewer quickly establishes him as a presence no less important than the white man who is painting him. Sloan, in contrast, sometimes introduced a note of levity into such Indian/Anglo confrontations, mostly at the expense of whites. With such images as Knees and Aborigines, an etching that caricatures voyeurism among Anglos at a Pueblo dance scene, he shows a group of Anglo women wearing the latest “flapper” dresses, ending well above the knee, which the viewer immediately notes lack the beauty and dignity of the dresses worn by the female Indian dancers. But when Sloan left behind the politics of spectatorship and turned to dance scenes featuring Koshare, the striped, clown-like figures whose performances preceded important Pueblo ceremonies, he struck a new note. Koshare in fact fulfilled a major role in the Pueblo pantheon, functioning as spirits who guided Pueblo elders once they emerged from rituals periodically conducted in underground chambers called kivas. Sloan painted these Koshare dancers, still deeply absorbed in post-kiva ritual, with almost mystical reverence.

The discussion of the Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh condenses in many ways the methodology Scott uses throughout A Strange Mixture. The chapter first appeared as an article in The Art Bulletin, no small feat for Scott, as well as for the artist, whose name was probably unknown to 98 percent of its readers. Space, already growing short, allows me only to say that Scott’s discussion of the artist’s pictorial abstractions opens wide the question of Pueblo agency in such works. Tsireh was apparently a master at keeping “leaks” of sacred material to a minimum, never letting on to his Anglo patrons that his “abstractions” were revealing only a reduced version of a sacred narrative. Nevertheless, such images gave rise to the belief that Pueblo designs were one of the deep wells from which American artists drew inspiration for their increasingly abstract artistic output. Scott’s critical approach, ever alert to such misleading theories, accompanies the reader throughout the book, making her arguments more available and useful as we proceed. One could even say that her thought process seems to be ever present in the construction and flow of her prose. While to some extent that may be a personal accomplishment, honed by writing and rewriting portions of the text, the broader approach Scott has developed—inspired visual analysis based on an acute understanding of Pueblo politics—could be a model for the field, raising the bar of scholarship to a level that has not been reached in most previous publications. 

William Truettner
Smithsonian American Art Museum